Monday, February 12, 2007

On Torture

Frequently as I'm reading the news, I see articles with connected themes. For example, there is this article from the New Yorker on the Joel Surnow, the creator of "24", and the ubiquitosness of torture in the series, and specifically an excerpt of the article that Nat-Wu commented on in email:
In a more sober tone, [Surnow] said, "We've had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, 'You don't realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.' They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that.

Nat-Wu's comment was "Right, the experts are the ones who are wrong."

As I read the New Yorker article, I also thought of Eric Fair and his editorial in the Washington Post. Fair at least qualifies as an "expert" at interrogation, and at what some of us would also consider torture. This is how the editorial begins:
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his
interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

Fair, like any decent man, can't forget the pain and suffering he willingly inflicted on another, even compelled as he was by orders to do so. Fair's own pain and suffering also resonates in this excerpt, again from the New Yorker article:
The "24" producers told the military and law-enforcement experts that they were careful not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had clearly exacted a psychological toll on the character. (As Gordon put it to me, "Jack is basically damned.") Finnegan and the others disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state's witness with a hacksaw. Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.'s top experts in questioning techniques, attended the meeting; he told me, "Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don't want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems."
The difference between Bauer and Fair of course is the fact that Bauer is not a real person, and Fair is. Fair wakes up at night screaming. If Bauer has the same remorse, we the viewer will never see it (significantly, Bauer's only visible qualms about torture come after he himself is presumably tortured for years in a Chinese prison.) Of course, "24" is just a tv show. But this example illustrates an important distinction between those who reject torture and those who are torture's apologists. Those who advocate torture as an interrogation technique resort to elaborate scenarios to justify its use. Here is Surnow again in the New Yorker article:
I don't think it's honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn't do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I'd do it. There is nothing—nothing—I wouldn't do."

You'll note that he favors using it in circumstances that have nothing to do with our present national security situation. Who wouldn't inflict pain upon someone deserving of it, like a kidnapper, to find their wife and children? Who wouldn't use it to find a nuclear weapon hidden and set to detonate soon in a crowded city? But of course, those are not the circumstances in which it's being used. Instead it's being used on "terrorists" in Iraq, with no demonstration that it has in anyway benefitted our cause in defeating the insurgency (and every indication that it has only fueled the insurgency), on members of Al Qaeda with little evidence that it's use has aided us in destroying Al Qaeda, and on innocent men and women on which it can only be considered a crime. And it's being used to the effect that according to the experts quoated in the New Yorker article, we have either psychopaths working for the military and civilian intelligence agencies, or we have men like Fair being tortured by their own consciences years later.

In other words, the use of torture is insupportable except in circumstances that do not exist in reality. And yet according to it's supporters, these elaborate and fantastic scenarios that do not exist in reality justify its use against those on whom it does not work, even at the cost of our moral standing in the world and the mental health of the men and women who commit it.

This is not the thinking of rational adults. This is the thinking of the fearful, who comfort themselves with the fiction that torture "works" because they are afraid of terrorists, or criminals, or insurgents, or whoever it is who is to be tortured. But it doesn't work, and we're not any safer for its use.


adam said...

I was very sad to see this article, but I can only hope that different viewpoints are equally put into the making of the show.

Nat-Wu said...

Well, last year the President was the enemy, and allied with oil interests. That's not something a Bushite would do, I don't think. At least enough goes into the making of the show that all kinds of fantastical situations come up, not just ones that prove conservative points.